No matter what industry you’re in, it likely has a conference, convention or trade show. If it’s a high-growth sector such as technology, chances are you have more conference opportunities than you have available days in your calendar.
I’ll let you in on a secret. In comparing notes with my friends and conference veterans, we generally agree: most conferences aren’t worth the time or money.
There are exceptions. But most conferences -- especially the big ones -- just don’t measure up. Based on my experience, they tend to be too cliquey, overpriced, repetitive, sponsor-heavy or excuses to party/free vacation.
I’ve got nothing against parties, but before you drop thousands of dollars and your valuable time on another conference, here five tips on getting some conference-like value, without actually going to one, or at least doing your due dilligence.
1. Attend free meet-ups or local industry specific meetings. Most of the real value in attending conferences is who you meet. Sharing an early cup of coffee or a late-night drink with a new contact can be invaluable. On rare occasions, convention contacts can turn into mentors, clients or ignite new ventures.
But many of these same contacts are at free local meetings such as MeetUps that can be found and researched online. In addition, the lower pressure, no-cost atmosphere of a MeetUp can make introductions easier.
2. Look online for the speakers you’re interested in. Most of what is offered at conferences isn’t new. Again, there are exceptions. But chances are that conference presenters have covered their topics before and, often, their remarks or presentations are online.
Check sites such as YouTube, TED Talks and Slideshare for previous presentations. It’s also a good idea to see if any of the people you want to hear from have blogs. When they do, they are often a treasure-trove of information and can be more detailed and informative than sitting in a hotel ballroom with hundreds of other people listening to a talk.
3. Find events without heavy sponsor tie-ins. Conferences needs sponsors -- no question. But many overdo the connection between presentations and the underwriters by flipping prime speaking spots to their sponsors.
Related: 9 Major Networking No-No's
There are tons of conventions without the heavy, product-focused pitches that can get in the way of hearing the experts and insights you may be expecting. A look beyond the registration page and comparing who’s presenting with who’s sponsoring may help you make a better decision.
4. Ask previous attendees. Since most conferences are annual events, it’s not hard to find someone who went last year.
Ask your colleagues if they went and -- more importantly -- if they are going this year. Search Twitter and LinkedIn for mentions of the conference and ask even if you don’t know the person. It’s a great way to introduce yourself and could save you real time and money.
5. Just party-crashing can be tricky. Many of the larger conferences such as SXSW are almost all about the parties and side events rather than the actual conference.
As a conference attendee, I always found it irritating when people skipped the work parts just to pass out business cards at a cocktail reception. But it’s an option -- especially if you’re on a budget. Be warned though, many of the best parties are either invite only or open only to convention registrants. Sometimes, the best off-campus opportunities are at host hotels that are themselves only open to those attending the conference.
Don’t just hop a plane to a city and expect to party crash without registering first. It may not be worth even the minimal investment.
The bottom line is go if you need inspiration. But if you’re already inspired and working on something you’re passionate about, your money and time are most likely better spent working on that.
If you need to go -- or just need to get away -- a little research can go a long way.